No burials were allowed on the sacred island of Delos, birthplace of Artemis and Apollo.
No burials were allowed on the sacred island of Delos, birthplace of Artemis and Apollo.

The ancient Greeks gave serious thought to the meaning of death and the circumstances of the afterlife. Funeral customs were influenced by beliefs about what happened to the deceased. But not all philosophical discussion of mortality -- and immortality -- was in agreement. In some views, you might be condemned to eternal misery. In others, death was the open door to a new adventure. Burial traditions followed basic rituals, whatever the fate of the departed soul.

Homer and Hades

The Greek epic poet Homer used words like "dank," "moldering," and "burnt-out wraiths" to refer to life after death and the underworld. Legend, myth and common belief reinforced a view of Hades as an immortal realm where pale shades of former living people existed in a dull shadow world. The most virtuous, or fortunate were consigned to the pleasant meadows of the Elysian Fields.The worst, or unluckiest, characters ended up in Tartarus, the bottom ring of hell, a place of endless torment. Everyone else wandered in the gloomy Plains of Asphodel in a state of eternal ennui. As unappealing as Hades seemed, there was the fate of the dead who were unmourned or improperly buried was worse. They were cursed to wander without rest, no longer among the living but not permitted entry to the realm of death either.

Pythagoras and the Fate of the Psyche

Some 300 years after Homer, Pythagoras, an important Greek philosopher, mathematician, scientist and ascetic, taught a different -- and more hopeful -- view of life after death. Pythagoras believed in reincarnation and a happier existence in the realm of death where desires would be met and all good things experienced. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Pythagoras was regarded as an expert on the soul and his particular brand of reincarnation held that rebirth could be in the body of another feeling being, often an animal. He also taught that history repeats itself and that the psyche or soul retained its personality and could revisit the same events lifetime after lifetime. The concepts of immortality and of a soul that could be touched by pleasure and pain, underlines the importance the Greeks placed on caring for and honoring the memory of the dead.

Preparations for Burial

The belief in existence after death, whether as a ghostly shade or a reincarnated soul, led to burial traditions that survived for centuries. Upon death, the women of the family would wash, annoint and dress the body, wrap it in a shroud, and place it on a funeral platform or bier. This evoked Thanatos, the god of gentle, sleep-like death. For the prothesis, or wake, wreaths of myrtle, laurel and marjoram -- symbolizing immortality, honor and love -- decorated the house. Mourners lamented loudly throughout the two or three days of the wake because they believed the departed soul could hear them. The family served feasts, if they could afford to, and sometimes provided music or funeral games. The wealthier the family, the more lavish the decor, entertainments and meals served in honor of the deceased were.

Customs and Cremation

At the end of the prothesis, a procession -- the ekphora -- carried the body from the house to a cemetery outside the walls of the city. Mourners accompanied the body to continue lamentations and the ekphora took place at night, in the hours before dawn, to avoid disruption to the daily business of the city. Most bodies were set on a funeral pyre at the burial site and cremated, although some Greeks did bury their dead. Ashes, collected in painted funeral amphora, were buried in the cemetery along with a few grave goods such as jewelry, sentimental gifts from family members, weapons and other commemorative or useful items. A large amphora with a hole drilled in the bottom was sometimes set on the grave. When mourners visited the grave site, they could pour food and libations into the amphora, believing the sustenance would seep down to the underworld.